Ankhie just spent a glorious weekend (after a rather inglorious bout of stomach flu) in the Catskills with her near and dear, doing what we always do this time of year – outdoor rituals involving potable potions, swirling flame, best intentions, and a great deal of laughter and music. This year, there were new friends joining in – unused to our witchy ways and the peculiarities of the (rather enchanted) place – so there was some explaining to do.
The Catskills, for those of you who are unfamiliar, are situated about 2 hours north of New York City, west of the Hudson River and the granite hills of Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Catskills are composed mostly of ancient sediments -slate and shale – and when viewed from a distance the mountains display a distinct striated pattern. They are stunning, and very spooky.
Our friends live in a hollow between foothills. The property was once owned by a fringe religious group, whose members occasionally still turn up asking “Have you found the root cellar?” No explanation is offered. No clues as to what or where the cellar is, or why they are still interested. They seem harmless, just curious about how the property has changed, but won’t expand on their inquiries. Because the ground is essentially rock with a thin veneer of soil and grass, a root cellar (or any excavated space) would have been quite a labor, and not quickly abandoned or easily overgrown. Even so, it’s location and purpose is still a mystery. What my friends have found is a chamber built into a shale shelf behind the neighbor’s house (a likely candidate), a deep and truly unsettling cistern (think The Ring), and a quarry riddled with small animal dens. The new members of our party were briefed on all of this, and appropriately fascinated.
What is it about these deep and dark places that so enthrall us? In my own extended, childhood backyard there is a well hidden just off an abandoned road. It has no walls above ground level, and is often disguised by fallen branches and leaves. It is a deadly thing. Deep beyond sight, and lined with jagged stone. If I’m near it, I just can’t stay away – even though the debris makes its exact location a mystery and a threat, every time. Then there is the old soapstone quarry, just a semi-circular cliff now, rising from the body of a reservoir. In a boat (the only way to access it) the walls are sheer and echo every sound, the water, clear as glass 100 yards away, is black here, and very still. I have never caught a fish there in decades of trying, but it’s always the first place I steer my boat.
It is not at all surprising that these types of places have always been associated with both the spiritual and the paranormal. Wells and springs haunted by faeries or other native spirits became associated with Saints, just as temples were torn down for churches. These places speak to the darker (non-intellectual) part of ourselves for good reason. What that reason is exactly, I’m not informed enough to say, but I did run across this passage in Freddy Silva‘s excellent Legacy of the Gods; the Origin of Sacred Sites and the Rebirth of Ancient Wisdom:
Beneath the holiest of Muslim shrines, the Ka’Ba, there exists a well; sacred springs exist below Temple Mount, just as they do beneath Chartres and Glastonbury Tor; the Gothic cathedrals of Wells, Winchester and Salisbury are built on marshland and designed to practically float on such architecturally unsuitable terrain; in fact, so many beautiful pieces of sacred architecture sit on ground wholly unsuitable for heavy structures.10 The Egyptian pyramids sit above deep fissures of the earth through which flow hundreds of veins of pressurized water. Even stone circles amid the deserts of Nubia and Libya sit on domes of water, as does the Navajo altar in Monument Valley, situated between two voluminous sand dunes out of which bursts a serpentine gush of cold, clear water.
Without exception, every sacred site is located above or beside water. Water is the foundation of every temple.
Like sacred mountains or landscape temples, holy wells and sacred springs are the epitome of the temple in its natural state, and their hypnotic power has been honored since prehistoric times. Many have been integrated within the boundaries of constructed temples, even represented on the inside by the octagonal church font and its holy water. In his delightful discourse on the holy wells of Cornwall, Paul Broadhurst describes how these places were seen by ancient people “as gateways to the Otherworld, where the vital flow of life-force could be used to penetrate the veil of matter to experience a more formative reality. And so they were used to contact unseen realms where communication could take place with the gods and spirits.”11 Celtic Britain – Ireland in particular – still venerates its ancient holy wells and sacred springs, and anyone who visits these remote shrines is often taken aback by the monastic ambience pervading their surroundings. Direct contact with these special waters have provided healing and inspiration for poet and pilgrim since the days of Sumerian Eridu and its temple honoring Ea, the god of the House of Water, where the ritual of baptism was performed as an integral part of temple initiation.
Ea and the Babylonian post-diluvial god Oannes share identical characteristics and attributes thousands of years later with John the Baptist via the linguistic route of the Hebrew Yohanan, the Greek Ioannes, and finally, the English John. Strange how an identical character emerges in the Biblical narrative 9000 years after the god Oannes emerges from the flood, complete with fish symbology, and an aphorism Wells Cathedral sits over several sacred springs,from which its gets its name.reminiscent of the act of consecration of the Egyptian temple: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” 12
Throughout Britain, western France and northern Iberia, holy wells and springs came under the protection of the Celtic church, essentially a reformation of Druidism, which maintained the tradition of honoring the site to the degree that by the Victorian era physicians in London were still sending patients to be cured at such pagan sanctuaries. On my guided excursions to the wells and springs of Cornwall and southern Dorset I have watched groups of excited and inquiring minds develop an immediate languid state of mind as they approach the waters of St. Catherine’s well at Cerne, once part of a pagan temple honoring the fertility god Cernunnos. Likewise, the holy well at St. Clether, Cornwall, is a unique sanctuary where a channel of water from the outside well house passes directly through the tiny church and under a rough stone altar resembling one of Stonehenge’s trilithons in miniature.
Water at sacred sites is very different in frequency to ordinary water. Tests conducted using infrared spectroscopy show that holy water absorbs light at different frequencies. Holy well water is free from bacteria and contains natural minerals which are known to be beneficial to health and longevity.13 This extremely pure water also exhibits greater properties of spin, and such vortices create an electrical charge which then generate an electromagnetic field, certainly enough to transform it into something different from ordinary liquid.14
Despite the world being covered two-thirds by water, it is still a mysterious element: it grows lighter rather than heavier as it freezes; its surface tension causes it to stick to itself to form a sphere – the shape with the least amount of surface for its volume, requiring the least amount of energy to maintain itself. And yet when its extraneous gases are removed from a drop the size of an inch, it becomes harder than steel.15 Its potency can be enhanced by the use of crystals, particularly quartz, the prime material found in the stone used in temple-building. This has a marked effect on water’s surface tension, and Tibetan physicians have used this combination to make efficacious solutions for their patients.16 Not surprisingly, enlightened kings and queens of old had water transported from sacred sites to their court by means of rock crystal bowls, which served to maintain the energy of the water during transportation. Anyone who has tried this in recent times knows just how it makes the water taste like liquid air.
As a postscript – very near the quarry (across the water to the south) there used to be a spring – just a pipe jutting out of the hillside and spilling into and old horse trough. I remember drinking from it on hot summer days. The pipe was pulled out and the trough removed years ago (worries over bacteria, etc. etc.) but no water, nothing in fact, has ever come close to that taste. If I had to reduce the enchantment of childhood to one sensation, that would be it.